Rev. Sandy Drayton, reacts during a prayer vigil held at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 18, 2015.
Rev. Sandy Drayton, reacts during a prayer vigil held at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 18, 2015.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest independent denomination founded by blacks in the world, an offshoot of the white-run Methodist Church that once refused entry to black members.

The AME Church, as it is known, grew out of the Free African Society established by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others in Philadelphia in 1787.

At that time, Allen and others of African descent withdrew from St. George's Methodist Church because of restrictions placed on worshippers of African descent.

Mother Bethel

After leaving St. George's, he and his followers purchased a blacksmith shop where they worshipped and helped the sick and the poor. In 1794, the shop was converted into a church, which they called Mother Bethel, and Allen became its pastor.

To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution.

Because black Methodists in other mid-Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called on them to form a new denomination.

In 1816, 16 representatives from Bethel and African churches in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey met in Philadelphia. The movement blossomed and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized. Richard Allen became its first bishop.

Mostly confined to northern states before the U.S. Civil War, major AME congregations were established in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and other large cities.  

Largest denomination

Additional locations took root in the slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, and, for a few years, South Carolina.

The denomination reached the Pacific Coast in the early 1850s with churches in Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, and other California towns.

After the war, the church spread rapidly in the South as AME clergy moved into the states of the collapsing Confederacy to pull newly freed slaves into their denomination.

By 1880, AME membership reached 400,000, largely due to its rapid spread below the Mason-Dixon line.

Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is the largest Black Methodist denomination in the U.S. with about 2.2 million congregants. AME has about 3.5 million members in 39 countries worldwide.